Sarraj's camp pins hope on US, French support to curb LNA's offensive

The fear that Russia, having secured most of Syria, has its eyes fixed on Libya appears to have taken hold in Washington.
Friday 15/11/2019
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) shakes hands with Libya's Foreign Affairs Minister Mohamed Taher Siala at the State Department in Washington, November 14. (AFP)
Hoping for support. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) shakes hands with Libya's Foreign Affairs Minister Mohamed Taher Siala at the State Department in Washington, November 14. (AFP)

TUNIS - Faced with a weakening military defence in southern Tripoli against the Libyan National Army, the Libyan Presidential Council stepped up efforts to convince the international community, notably the United States and France, to support it.

Council Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, the most powerful member of the council’s Government of National Accord (GNA), and Foreign Minister Mohamed Siala have been in Washington trying to convince the Trump administration that a victory for the Libyan National Army (LNA), headed by Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar, would deliver Libya into Russian hands.

Presidential Council Vice-President Ahmed Maiteeq went to Paris seeking French support. The visit is in sharp contrast to strained relations between Tripoli and Paris and the verbal attacks on France by GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj accusing it of supporting Haftar.

Developing a third axis for wider international support, the GNA said it is prepared to hand over Saif al-Islam Qaddafi to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In proceedings at the ICJ relating to the case of former dictator Muammar Qaddafi’s son, lawyers representing the GNA said the Tripoli-based government approved his handover.

Sending Qaddafi to the Hague would present major challenges for the GNA. Supporters of the former regime are bitterly opposed to such a move but, as many of them now support Haftar, the GNA is unlikely to be particularly concerned about their views.

More important is to stem public sympathy for Qaddafi. In the chaotic and miserable conditions in which many Libyans live because of the conflict, particularly in and around Tripoli and in south Libya, there is considerable nostalgia for the Qaddafi regime and a belief that the younger Qaddafi could turn the clock back and give Libyans a better life.

Handing him to the ICJ would not be widely popular. This is likely to be more so given the growing belief throughout Libya that the international community, rather than Libyan divisions, is the source of the country’s woes and that only when foreign interference stops can Libyans start to resolve their differences themselves.

Ever since he was taken to Zintan after being captured in November 2011, Qaddafi has been kept as a bargaining chip. Despite reports of his release and an amnesty from authorities in eastern Libya in June 2017, Qaddafi is said to be held in Zintan by Sarraj’s commander of operations in the area west of Tripoli, Osama Juwaili.

The GNA is, therefore, in a position to deliver him and score points with the ICJ, the United Nations and various foreign governments, such as the French and the Americans, it is trying to woo.

The wooing of the French has not been particularly difficult despite the earlier standoff, which in April saw Bashagha suspend security cooperation with France because of its perceived support for the LNA.

In July, the admission by France that it had owned missiles seized by the GNA from retreating LNA forces in Gharyan the previous month did not make relations any easier. However, French officials are said to insist now that the previous support for Haftar in his fight against terrorism is over and that France fully backs a political, not a military, solution.

The GNA is hoping to build on that. Maiteeq’s visit to Paris follows a civil security agreement between France and Libya, signed this month in Tunis by Bashagha.

For the GNA, however, a change in French policy, away from supporting Haftar and instead backing a political solution, is less important than a change in Washington’s policy.

Despite suspicions that US President Donald Trump is sympathetic to Haftar, Washington appears to be moving in Sarraj’s direction. Concerns about Russia's intentions in Libya are the reason.

Those concerns were fuelled by reports of hundreds of Russian mercenaries fighting alongside the LNA in southern Tripoli, bringing a new impetus to the LNA’s hitherto flagging offensive.

Some speak of more than 1,000 mercenaries in Libya employed by the Russian private military company, the Wagner Group, whose boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. This is probably an exaggeration. Most reliable sources put the figure at not more than 200, possibly even just 100.

That has not stopped the GNA from maximising the reports. Sarraj warned of a Russian takeover if Haftar were to win and called on the United States to act to restore peace in the country. In meetings in early November with the US ambassador, both Sarraj and Bashagha repeatedly stressed the threat from Russian mercenaries.

The fear that Russia, having secured most of Syria, has its eyes fixed on Libya appears to have taken hold in Washington. For the first time, almost since 2014, a much sharper US policy is emerging.

In a statement November 14, during Bashagha’s and Siala’s visit to Washington, the US government called on the “Libyan National Army” to end its Tripoli offensive. It spoke of the need to prevent foreign interference in the country and of “Russia’s attempts to exploit the conflict against the will of the Libyan people.”

The use of quotes regarding the LNA was significant and deliberate. It indicates that the United States does not consider it legal. It was one of Washington’s strongest statements of support for the GNA.

The notion that the Americans or any other members of the international community should help end foreign interference in Libya may sound contradictory but it is what the GNA is banking on. Sarraj's government receives active support, including in the military field, from Turkey and Qatar.

The proposed Berlin conference, still a work in progress, has the proclaimed objective of ending foreign interference. Despite the LNA’s modest advances in southern Tripoli in October, there is optimism among Tripoli officials that it will go ahead.

The hope in Sarraj's camp is that the US political cavalry will arrive at the 11th hour, make its views felt and thwart an LNA victory.